Quietude: A Sweet Fragrance to the Ear

Tuggles Gap ~ Blue Ridge Parkway MP 166
Image by fred1st via Flickr

From Road Less Traveled column, Floyd Press, 17 June 2010

Can we sustain in our corner of southwest Virginia those amenities and virtues that make it a highly-livable place? We want to perpetuate the abundance of healthy local food, untainted and ample water, and a clear, odorless and breathable atmosphere. We’re very careful and concerned about what we eat, drink, inhale and see.

What we don’t think about so much as an environmental quality to be protected is our acoustic commons or “audiosphere.”

In mine just now there is sound from outside. Two things have to happen before I fully “hear” it–an initial objective perception followed by a subjective processing.

First, those sound waves have to reach the working parts of my middle and inner ear and be converted to nerve impulses that travel along the auditory nerve to the temporal lobe of the brain to be registered in my awareness as simple sound, as a “raw perception.”

Sounds too intense for too long result in hearing loss that is a mounting problem in our noisy world, especially among our ear-budded young people. But it is more the impact of those sounds on our internal state beyond mere hearing that I’d like to focus on here.

Okay: my sound from outside is a bird. Do I recognize the pattern and quality? Is it threatening? Are there good or bad memories associated with this sound? Does it make me fearful or happy? Every sound we hear sets off a series of complicated judgments and decisions, reflexes and emotions.

Unwanted sound we call noise, an insult of civilization nineteenth century writer Ambrose Bierce described as “a stench in the ear.” Even low levels of secondhand sound produce a variety of hormonal and nervous changes in our bodies that can be bad for our health and quality of life.

Noise is a “non-specific stressor” triggering changes in our hormones and the working of internal machinery in what is called the “fight or flight” response. Our systems respond to noise as a threat to our well-being, health and safety. It interferes with a fully working thought-world.

Think about it. Complete this sentence: “When it’s noisy, I can’t __________.

Your responses might include: Sleep. Relax. Rest. Think. Focus. Concentrate. Read. Remember. Heal from stress, injury or illness. Meditate. Study. Write.

Children in noisy schools don’t learn well. Testing after airport runways or train traffic is reduced show significantly higher scores and measures of well-being.

We may sleep through the night, but our brain waves register traffic sounds that don’t wake us up but still trigger stress responses in our brain waves and leave us less fully rested. Noise incidents and related aggression are high on the list of civil complaints and crime reports in our cities.

Noise–unnecessarily loud or persistent or ugly sounds, and especially auditory pollution that could be avoided or is used intentionally as a means of annoyance–is as bad for our health as second-hand smoke. We need freedom from noise to be fully healthy and fully-functioning humans.

They go together, as Forrest would say, “like peas and carrots”: Peace. And quiet.

Quietude is a prerequisite to clarity of mind and soul. We claim it as a right yet we can deny it so easily to our neighbors by our indifference. Like smoke from a careless fire, noise passes unimpeded across property lines. We can close our eyes, but we can’t close our ears.

It takes so little to shatter another’s peaceful front-porch moment. And it is all the worse when it happens in places we go to for respite from busyness and the racket of everyday life. Un-muffled engine noise along the Blue Ridge Parkway or a passing car’s full-volume boom box through open windows at midnight as we sleep can accost us like acoustic litter tossed into our lives.

So the moral of this tale of good and bad decibels is to do acoustically unto others, and respect the quietude of your neighbors like you’d want them to do for you. We have a good thing going here. Listen. Read more on this topic in Fred’s annotated web pages at Diigo.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Very well researched post. I agree that noise disturbs our inner core. People say they love the hustle and bustle of the city but do they really? — barbara

  2. Very well written and interesting. You gave us a lot of science without boring us. Barabara’s point about people loving the hustle and bustle of the city is provocative, because it is true for me on a short visit. But I know my adrenaline level is sky high from excitement and noise the entire visit, and that eventually I would burn myself out if I were to stay any longer.
    I find that most Americans are aware of their noise being a problem to others, and they make reasonable efforts to suppress it. For instance, we camp a lot, and find that our fellow campers are very considerate as a rule about noise.